Sunday, September 23, 2012

Defective Detectives: THE ROLY POLY MAN (1994)

"Ok, so call me a bastard, but this wasn't a case for kids. It wasn't a case for anyone. No-one with half a brain would take it on. It was my kind of case."
- Dirk Trent, P.I.

I'm a sucker for Australian movies. I'm also a sucker for movies about hard-boiled private investigators. Better still if they wear a cheap suit and a snap-brim fedora. Dirk Trent (the late, great Paul Chubb) is just such a man. When not drinking mescal and smoking cigarettes at his favorite dive (that keeps a giant snifter filled with his leftover worms marked "Dirk's Big Trip"), he's videotaping cheating husbands and insurance grifters. While taping a cheating husband, Dirk and his punchy assistant Mickey (veteran character actor Les Foxcroft) discover something strange on the video tape. Their client's husband, found with his secretary at a sleazy hotel, appears to have murdered her with a hatchet in a spastic rage while dressed as an Indian chief. As it turns out, the secretary is very much alive and it appears her boss is the one who is dead. Of course the local homicide detective (Peter Braunstein) knows Dirk all too well and is righteously pissed off to find out that the tape not only contains no obvious murder, but no screwing either.

While digging for clues on this case, a punk kid freaks out, smashing his head against a wall until it explodes in a chunky mess. Even worse, Woozy Bear, the main character on everybody's favorite children's show dies on camera in the very same way. Suddenly Dirk's world is turned upside-down with someone pulling out all the stops to make sure that Dirk doesn't get to the bottom of the killings.

The bizarre plot-line is nothing more than a cork-board for all manner of clever jokes. Clever in a very laid-back Australian sort of way. Dirk narrates constantly in hard-boiled prose that even when being rather juvenile is delivered with gritty seriousness. For instance when the Dirk, Mickey and the local coroner and attempted love, Sandra (Susan Lyons), are going to break into the coroner's office to attempt to retrieve the head of Woozy Bear for private analysis, Dirk narrates:
"I didn't have the heart to tell Sandra that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. That I was winging it. There's stuff a girl doesn't need to know. Stuff like how you get a boner just thinking about her sister."

Even better is Dirk's thought process on the death of Woozy Bear, while Mickey mourns his passing and the thrash band plays a melancholy tune: "Death. Yeah, it comes to us all. Funny though, when it's stuck inside a six-foot-four bear costume with a bowler hat on it's head and a shit-for-brains, half-coked, acid-casualty smile plastered all over it's fat, furry face, it just takes time to hit you, that's all."

Throwaway gags abound, such a great bit where Dirk narrates that what he needs is a quiet drink. Cut to Dirk in his favorite bar with a thrash metal band (Exploding White Mice) playing in the back ground so loud that Dirk's inner dialogue requires subtitles. The bartender muses that perhaps he should do karaoke nights. Director Bill Young also wrote one of the songs ("Head to the Head") played by the band. In another funny throwaway, while raiding the coroner's office Dirk sees the creepy assistant grab a bottle of champagne and haul off a stiff in a wedding dress and thinks "there was something about Axel, I couldn't quite put my finger on it".

Over the decades there have been plenty of spoofs of the flatfoot genre, some less effective than others. One of the reasons I think this film played out so well was that it didn't have a lot of self-referential gags. Nobody mentions the Maltese Falcon, nobody says "play it again Sam", the bar isn't named "Bogart's", and like a lot of the best spoofs (AIRPLANE!), you don't even really need to be familiar with the source material at all to find it funny. The characters are all played pitch-perfect and veteran character actor Bill Young directs with such a steady hand, that you'd never know it was his one and only feature film. Too bad, I would have loved to have seen a sequel.

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